How Am I Jewish?
Upon meeting me Jews of Ashkenazi descent like to ask me a myriad of questions, from how are you Jewish, to when did you convert, to don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school? These questions never happen in a context of wanting to know me, they are about the questioner's own curiosity and trying to see how I fit into Judaism as if by answering these questions it will tell them everything they need to know about me. When people ask me these questions, I never know how to respond, sometimes I will respond “I’m just Jewish,” but often want to respond with something comical. I might even remind them that Jews have always been a multi-racial-cultural people. And I try to use my energy to educate other Jews about what it means to be Jewish in today's society, but sometimes it is really exhausting.
I often never get to tell my story in a way that feels safe. I am often made to feel like I am expected to rattle off a simple yes or no answer as if anyone’s Jewish story is that simple. All Jewish stories are complex, and personal. I’ve decided to tell my story here, a friend suggested that I use this link as a business card, and the next time someone asks I can just refer them here 😀
My Jewish Story
In my Junior year of college I joined the military and I spent most of my twenties in the United States Army as a Military Police Investigator working on cases of child abuse and domestic violence. While in the military I finished my bachelor’s degree, and graduated with honors from St. Leo University. It was at St. Leo University where my first real interest in Judaism arose. I took a class on the Old Testament, taught by Francis Githieya, Ph.D. I needed a humanities credit and Githieya’s class fulfilled that requirement, so I begrudgingly registered. I still remember to this day the first words Dr. Githieya said. He stated, in his very Kenyan accent, “You must read the textbook, and if you do not read the textbook you will fail my class.” Githieya went on to say that we should not come to class regurgitating words that our preacher told us, and if we did we would fail. He explained that this was a scholarly course and we would be studying the five books of Moses.” I remember thinking that I liked this guy, and that I could get an A out of this class, because I was not a Christian and would be free from any biases. I did exactly as Githieya describe and did get an A out of the class. The class provided my first real introduction to the Torah, and I was fascinated by the stories and the rich history of the text. The class also changed my view of religion.
My father was raised in a small black church in Blevins, Arkansas, and my mother never mentioned anything about attending a church or any other religious space when she was a kid. I grew up with very little knowledge of Christianity, I knew very little outside of the Jesus narrative. I was not raised in a religious household and had no formal religious education. My family did not go to church but we would on occasion when invited by neighbors. There were times when we would go more often than other times and then we would stop. Around the age of 12 or 13 I think we started going more often. My parents were having a hard time and I think that my mother saw this as a way to ensure that she retained custody. My mother knew that if they divorced that I would probably go and live with my dad, which would not have been a good thing because my dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict, who cheated on my mother whenever possible. And they had a very volatile relationship. I believe that my mother believed that she had to do whatever she had to do to get custody of my brother and I. At one point she hired a social worker and also she found a minister, who I did not like very much. His name was Rev. Stuart and I saw him as a creepy little man who spouted out homophobic rants, and sexist rants during his sermons. I found it strange as a 13 year old that we went to his church; I always saw my mother as a feminist and could not believe that we had to sit and listen to this guy. She would tell me that she would take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff.
As I got older I learned from my mother that the earliest relative in her family did not come to America as a slave. She told me that he immigrated to this country from Ethiopia and he was a Jew. She later told me that he married a non-Jew and the religion was not passed down. I also vaguely remember her saying that no one believed he was a Jew. This story for my mother and her sisters was a pretty powerful story because it meant to her, that her earliest ancestor was not a slave. We did not eat pork or shellfish and, looking back on it, I’m not really sure why. I asked my mother about this and she would tell me that pork was bad for us. I wonder sometimes: If my mother’s oldest known ancestor had immigrated to this country and found it more hospitable to black people and welcoming to Jews of color, would my story have been different?
After the military, I became a personal trainer and ran my own personal training business. My life also became incredibly Jewish; I had Jewish clients, Jewish friends and a Jewish girlfriend, Laura (name changed). Dating Laura, also introduced me to her family. Laura’s sister, Maggie, Maggie’s husband and their kids always met for Shabbat dinner and always invited me. I loved the rituals and loved watching this very modern family slow down as everyone sat down for a meal. I even loved how this family opened themselves and their home to include me week after week, something that has stayed with me even to this day as I struggle to understand what it means to have a Jewish family and a Jewish home.
While I was dating Laura, I met a man who would forever change my life, Rabbi Joshua Lesser. Today he is one of my closest friends and one of my strongest supporters. I cannot even begin to tell you the impact he has had on my life. Josh hired me to be his personal trainer. As we worked together toward his goals, our relationship grew and so did my curiosity. I started to ask Josh questions about Judaism, and he invited me several times to come to his synagogue. I wanted to, but I was scared -- mostly out of fear that I would be treated differently because I was black. At Josh’s synagogue, Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH), that never happened, in fact it was quite the opposite.
The day I finally made it to CBH there was a potluck. Josh was on the bimah during the service, kids were running around and their parents were listening attentively. I was very fascinated by this, because the children were free to run around. Every church I had been to the children would have been forced to sit still in the pew as if somehow shackled. There was also a helper dog, Chance. Chance during the service was helping himself to all of the crumbs that were dropped by humans from the potluck. I watched with glee as the humans adjusted themselves in their pews so that Chance could get the crumbs. The children running around, the dog, all of this was happening during the service. Then there was this prayer called a Prayer for the End of Hiding, a prayer which begins “we as gay and lesbian Jews...” and the entire community was saying this prayer, even the straight folks. I fell in love with CBH then and knew that I had to be a part of the community.
For over a year I had started to think about conversion. Up until this time I had thought that I would move from Atlanta, I would find a different rabbi and start my conversion. One day it hit me that I should make Atlanta my home and I was not going to move. On Christmas Eve 2003 Josh and I had lunch and I proceeded to tell him that I wanted to be part of the CBH community and if that meant being Jewish then I wanted to be Jewish. I think I had a sense that I wanted full membership into the community and it was much clearer to me that being Jewish meant being part of the CBH community. I also told him that I wanted to work with him on conversion, but I did not want to do it if it meant messing up our friendship.
CBH became my spiritual home, and in 2004 and I officially entered into the Jewish covenant the day before my 34th birthday. Even though I went through a formal conversion, I don’t feel like I converted. I don’t even like the term “Jews by Choice.” I see the term as a fancy way of saying convert and another way to separate out people who are different in the Jewish community. Once someone is Jewish, then they are Jewish. Any attempt to make someone different in the Jewish community, I see that as against Jewish law. I instead feel like I got in touch with my Jewish roots and I am back where my family should have been all along.
So Why Rabbinical School?
One Friday night Josh gave a sermon about Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute for Sex Research in the 1920’s. Hirschfeld lived in pre-World War II Germany during the rise of Nazism. Josh related in his sermon that at this time in German history the Jewish community did not want to have anything to do with the gay community, and the gay community did not want to have anything to do with the Jewish community. Hirschfeld was both gay and Jewish. Josh proposed in his sermon a “what if.” What if Hirschfeld had used his identity as a gay Jew to be a bridge builder, and the Jewish community and the gay community worked together against the Nazis instead of working separately?
After hearing this sermon I recognized in myself that I had several separate isolated identities. I was gay over here, and Jewish over here and black over here. Looking back I guess I felt I would implode if my identities were all in the same place. After that sermon I made a conscious decision to unite all of my identities. In Atlanta, the Jews felt excluded from the black community, the black community was not connected with the Jewish community, the queer Jewish community felt excluded from the larger queer community. I felt that I could use my identities as a bridge builder.
Shortly after making this decision, Josh was invited to speak at the queer memorial service for Coretta Scott King. King was a wonderful friend to the LGBTQ community in Atlanta, and the community wanted to honor her. Josh could not attend and asked me to represent him. He knew that the audience for the service would be made up of mostly LGBT people of African descent. By doing this I would be making a very public statement that I was black, Jewish and a queer. After I read Josh’s words at the memorial service, a woman came up to me and she told me that she wanted to convert to Judaism. The two of us began a conversation that culminated a year or so later at her Bet Din. Josh told her that he had been very disappointed that he could not attend that memorial service, but looking back it may have been a blessing that he was not there because she may not have felt comfortable at that moment telling him that she wanted to convert. Maybe that day it was good that the face of Bet Haverim was another black queer woman.
I used to ask Josh, “what kind of Rabbi are you?” I had never seen a man espouse feminist values, a white man so connected to communities of color or anyone so devoted to helping others. I thought he was this unique individual who also happened to be a rabbi. One day I got the honor of attending the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Convention and soon realized there was this school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that trained rabbis that were like Josh, and I wanted to go to that school.
During this time I had become a lay leader at CBH and I started to do more interfaith work. I enjoyed working with clergy but I soon began to realize two things: One, if I wanted to effect real change I needed to have the title rabbi. The other reason was I really wanted to bring more attention to the racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community which meant becoming more than just a lay leader, it meant becoming a rabbi.
In Case You Are Still Wondering...
I am Jewish today, and a rabbinical student because a friend reached out to me and invited me to his spiritual home. We need to do more of that. We need to reach out to people and if they are friends invite them to our synagogues, and shabbat meals not to proselytize but to share. I believe Judaism is wonderful why wouldn’t I want to share it with others?